Fallout 4 Wasn’t Bad, People Just Forgot What Fallout Is All About

To say people were unhappy when Fallout 4 came out is an understatement. Honestly, I was one of those people. “It doesn’t have the freedom of New Vegas,” a friend of mine told me back in November 2015. “I know,” I replied, “and Fallout 3 had a much better story. Fallout 4 is a load of shite.” I think I actually wrote a blog post when I was 19 called, “Fallout 4: The Death Of A Franchise.” You won’t find it anywhere, don’t bother looking. I’ve purged that immensely embarrassing article from the face of the earth.

I’d like to think I’ve grown up enough in the last five years that my impressions of video games are no longer steered by the thoughts of my friends — and, somewhat more baselessly, the internet. In hindsight, Fallout 4 was pretty good. There was no Megaton, granted, and it lacked the boundless freedom of an Obsidian RPG. It was clunky in a lot of ways, and Preston Garvey is still an irritating dipshit. But ultimately, Fallout 4 is emphatically a Fallout game, and a particularly good one at that.

Let’s look at the premise of Fallout from a bird’s eye perspective. War is not nice. The world has been ravaged by atomic bombs and the few remaining survivors that roam the hell-scorched Capital Wasteland are generally awful people who are only out for themselves. There are some good’uns knocking about, too. But mostly people are a bit shit to each other, and if you can scrounge a few extra bottle caps by throwing someone to the dogs, you probably will.

Fallout isn’t just some pessimistic steampunk dystopia either. There’s hope flickering in every corner of its barren world. There are people out there who genuinely care about carving out a bright future for posterity. The problem is that it’s rare to see two people agree with one another, let alone everyone else. And so society becomes a tribalistic hellscape where warring factions fight pointless ground wars wearing large asinine caps emblazoned with the many reasons they believe they’re in the right. “If only I could convince other people that my vision is the only worthwhile one, I wouldn’t have to kill them anymore,” ponders Elder Maxson. “The Railroad is here to protect the little people by murdering all of the ones who don’t believe in us,” thinks Desdemona. The Institute, meanwhile, is just holed up in a hi-tech underground world of its own, sending cybernetically-enhanced synths out to serve as the face behind the blood on its hands.

That tripartite factional structure is so deeply and emphatically Fallout that it becomes impossible to deny Fallout 4 as a worthy entry in a longstanding and versatile series. I think a lot of people confuse genre and mechanics with the thematic basis for a story told in a specific universe. You’re not some courier who gets clocked in the head and has ultimate freedom. You’re not the Vault Dweller from Fallout or the Chosen One from Fallout 2, either. You’re the Sole Survivor and you have an established backstory — to an extent. Yes, the game sends you on a wild goose chase to find your son, who is now much older than you (still weird). But seriously, Fallout’s main story accounts for a relatively minor proportion of what each game actually is in a wider context. It’s about being a small speck in a large world, and carving out a name for yourself as either a hero or a total bastard. Or maybe somewhere in between. It’s totally up to you, and that’s the best bit.

I love battering Deathclaws and I love chatting to absurd robots who spent decades without having a conversation with anyone — although the latter often leans more into the tragedy part of tragicomic, and can be a bit sad. That’s all there in Fallout 4. The world is intact, and serves as a genuinely intriguing insight into yet another part of post-apocalyptic America.

Fallout’s apocalypse is always going to be an interesting one, to me, because it’s lonely and loud in equal measure. On one hand, you spend hours upon hours traversing desolate landscapes with only a dog for companionship (as if anyone needs more than a good boy to be mates with). On the other, new-age cities have sprung up out of nowhere – tin megastructures looming large over toxic lakes and bombed-out shopping centres. The enthusiastic hustle and bustle of thriving survivors is subtly compounded with a general sense of dread, greed, and fear. There are bright lights everywhere, neon flashes illuminating these new beacons of hope in a world that almost lost it — but the lights are also deterrents, distracting you from what exists outside the four walls of Diamond City. From Far Harbor to Goodneighbor, to Nuka World and beyond, Fallout 4 nails the atmosphere of what Fallout is supposed to be. It’s absurd mayhem everywhere you look — and that’s what the best bits of other Fallout games have always been rooted in: the juxtaposition of long hours spent wandering lonely roads and the overwhelming sensory overload that follows them.

Fallout 4’s settlement system is also criminally underappreciated. Sanctuary Hills is boring. Diamond City is like any contemporary metropolis — fun for a bit, but there comes a time when it all becomes a bit much. Being able to recruit companions and ordinary people to build your own little society out in the sticks is a remarkable addition to the agency Fallout affords you. It’s not just about doing quests for bigwigs or shooting said bigwigs in the face — you can actually make something meaningful in a dilapidated world with a variety of other people on your side. You build structures supporting running water, house people in residential areas, and tinker with electronics to provide power and communications. You look at a crater, a vainglorious reminder of the events that preceded unfortunate circumstances, and cover up its inherent pessimism with new hope.

Fallout 4 is the first game in the series where it wasn’t about the bomb going off, or sort of finishing up a long and arduous quest for something important that provided partial closure without any real sense of a future. It allows you to genuinely live in this world, and the ongoing disputes between the Brotherhood of Steel, the Institute, and the Railroad… Well, leave them at it, they’re all mindlessly killing each other anyway. Fallout 4 allows you to steer clear of that and say that, yeah, the world is shit, but we can make it a bit less so. To me, that’s what Fallout is all about.

Read next: I Ruined My Own Childhood By Realizing That Ash Ketchum Is The Real Villain In Pokemon

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Cian Maher is an Associate Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. His favourite game of all time is and always will be The Witcher 3, but he also loves The Last Guardian, NieR: Automata, Dishonored, and pretty much every Pokemon game ever released. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.

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